The 4,000 or so Tunisian refugees who have landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa are just a drop in the ocean in terms of the sheer number of people trying to gain entry to the EU each year. In 2009, around 260,000 people applied for asylum due to religious or political persecution, according to the European statistics office.
The number of people who travel illegally into the EU cannot be easily officially measured, but is estimated that there are between two and four million people living illegally in the EU, out of a total population of 500 million.
Looking at these statistics, the 4,000 new refugees in Italy and the 100 million euro fund the Italian government requested from the EU starts to look a little excessive. It amounts to 25,000 euros per refugee.
Entry by land
The picture painted by refugees who loaded up in decrepit old boats to cross the Mediterranean was a terrible one, but a picture that does not reflect reality. The majority of refugees coming to Europe enter by land through Greece or the Balkans, or arrive by air.
Entering the EU by boat is by far the most dangerous way to travel. According to aid agencies, since 1998 around 15,000 people have been killed trying to land in Europe.
Under EU law, the country in which the refugees arrive, is the country which has to deal with them. The regulation governing this element of EU law is called 'Dublin II' and aims to prevent so-called "asylum shopping." An asylum application is to be examined by only one member state, and this often means deporting migrants within the EU back to the nation in which they first arrived.
In the interests of European solidarity, financial assistance is given, however there is no re-allocation of migrants along some kind of quota system.
The number of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants entering Germany and other northern EU states has declined considerably since Dublin II was introduced in 2003, as migrants are deported back to their EU entry-point. Yet in terms of the number of asylum applications granted, Germany is the second highest in the EU behind the UK. Italy hardly grants any grounds for asylum and ships the majority of applicants back to their homeland.
However several of the countries of entry are struggling to cope with the high number of asylum seekers. Greece is struggling to cope with controlling its Mediterranean border, which has become the gateway to Europe for many Turkish migrants.
The European Court for Human Rights established in January that refugees should no longer be deported from other countries to Greece, because the asylum policy there contradicts the European convention on human rights. German authorities have already stopped sending refugees to Greece.
Developing a united EU policy
In 2004 the EU founded the border control agency FRONTEX, which has its base in Warsaw. FRONTEX's job is to provide assistance to those member states who need help in securing their borders. Since last year, FRONTEX has been active on the Greek-Turkish border and also has made patrols of the Mediterranean. FRONTEX is also on hand to help the Italian authorities with the current influx of Tunisian refugees.
By 2012, the European Union wants to have a united asylum system in place across the bloc. Currently the grounds for granting asylum are different in each member state, and the EU wants this to be streamlined and unified with all asylum seekers meeting the same standards. Approved asylum seekers should be able to move freely within the EU's visa-free Schengen zone, and rejected applicants should not be able to make second applications in a second EU country.
The problem for many asylum seekers is making their application in the first place. Spain and Italy patrol the seas and send back boats with asylum seekers on before they've even reached EU shores. With north African countries, many EU states have set up "re-admission procedures" whereby those from these countries who try to enter the EU illegally can be swiftly sent back to their country of origin, without going through asylum procedures.
A key role is played by an agreement between Italy and Libya – where leader Muammar al-Gaddafi has pledged to intercept potential refugees in Libya, where they are allegedly housed in collective centers. Gaddafi will receive around 50 million euros from 2011 to 2013 to better patrol Libyan borders.
EU states have been looking to improve conditions for those living in neighboring countries, in the hope this will reduce asylum applications. For example, Tunisia will receive 80 million euros of financial assistance a year. But such measures only help in the long run. The majority of those seeking asylum in the EU come from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
From Tampere to Stockholm
Many politicians, including the former Social Democrat Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Günter Gloser, argue that the EU now needs to expand legal migration. Gloser argued there needs to be a system of rotating migration. For example, young men from Africa can spend one or two years legally in the EU earning money, and then return to their homeland. The idea being that they would then make space for the next generation.
However reality is rather different. The majority of legal immigrants come to Europe to be reunited with family members, and the most qualified of immigrants prefer to head to the UK or the US.
In 1998 in Tampere, Finland the EU looked at aspects of justice and home affairs, and in particular highlighted the need for common EU asylum and migration policy. By 2015 Europe is on its third call for a unified asylum policy (now under the name Stockholm).
The EU is desperate to hurry along member states, as migration experts have made it clear to Brussels that by 2020, an aging Europe will be in need of around 20 million legal migrants, who will also pay taxes and social contributions. Otherwise a 2007 migration report warns Europe's social systems are not viable in the long run.
Author: Bernd Riegert / cb
Editor: Andreas Illmer